The man in the bow tie and tortoiseshell glasses is holding forth as his black coffee goes cold. He has talked about CP Snow, Moore’s Law, the history of Belgium’s railways and the rise of Oswald Mosley with barely a pause for breath, let alone interruption. Now he’s referencing Thucydides and the Melian Dialogues; before we finish he’ll fit in a quick mention of Humbert Humbert, Uber and unicorns. Breakfast with the Estonian president, it’s fair to say, is unlike a meeting with any other politician.
There is a purpose to these verbal meanderings of Toomas Hendrik Ilves. When his nation regained independence in 1991, it sought territorial security through Nato and economic security through the EU – but Ilves worries that those supranational safety blankets do not appear to be as secure as they once were. Over the course of an hour he eloquently dissects the threat that the organisations face – and the ways in which he wants them to change.
His concerns over the EU are not solely to do with the union’s failure to deal with the current refugee crisis. Of greater worry, as he puts its, is “whether or not Europe as a whole can be competitive in the 21st century” and, in particular, the union’s inability to create a digital single market. Without it “there’s no point in the best and the brightest staying here to develop their services”.
Ilves is one of the few European leaders who genuinely knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the digital economy. Estonia is the most advanced digital nation in the EU, with citizens able to access their health records and vote in general elections online. Part of that drive has come from Ilves himself, who learnt to program when he was 13 and is as comfortable talking about coding as he is fiscal policy.
That’s not the case elsewhere, he claims. “The problem is you have people who don’t get technology who are in charge of policy and legislation. Here in Europe I find that the ignorance is especially great. And this division between the people who get it and the people who don’t is increasingly harming us. Our legislation is not keeping up with change – in fact there are attempts to block new economic models such as the sharing economy, and that will lead to disaster for Europe as a whole. If we don’t want Europe to turn into the world’s greatest museum we’d better do stuff.”
As the leader of a nation that shares a border with Russia, Ilves is understandably positive about his nation’s membership of Nato. But since Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and sent troops into eastern Ukraine, Estonia and its fellow eastern European nations have been asking their Nato allies for more assistance. Nato’s response to Russian aggression does not have to involve the military, Ilves insists. Instead, Nato – and the UK in particular – should target Russian money.
“I think we’re looking the wrong way at the problem. It’s not simply a matter of troops. If you have a kleptocratic regime that is interested in getting as much money as possible and shipping it to London then maybe the military response is not the best; maybe just turn off Swift [the network that enables money to be transferred across the world]. If you can’t do anything with your money then maybe you won’t go to war.”
Ilves accepts that there is currently little support for what he admits is “the nuclear option” but he worries that his fellow leaders in the EU and Nato are not taking the Russian threat seriously enough. There are too many politicians “thinking in the short term of economic benefits for their countries, not realising that what Russia has done – with the annexation of Crimea as well as its military presence in the Donbass – has really destroyed the foundations of post-Second World War security agreements”.
And Ilves has little time for those on the left, such as the UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who have been critical of Nato’s eastern expansion and suggested it has “provoked” Russia. “I mean that’s just a canard,” he says with a dismissive wave of the hand. “It shows a lack of understanding of what Nato’s about,” he adds, before characterising the anti-Nato argument as “standard crap that you saw in Daily Worker cartoons”.
Not that he is going to waste his time trying to convince those politicians otherwise. “If people are not intellectually serious from the get-go, there’s not much to talk about.”
President Ilves has always been this willing to speak his mind but the fact that his second and final term in office is coming to an end – the Estonian parliament will choose a new president in August – has almost certainly relaxed his tongue a little. Unlike other European politicians from small nations who have reached the top, Ilves does not have his eyes on a European or international post. Instead, he says, he is looking forward to working at a think-tank on public policy or IT issues.
This would probably be a better fit for him than the EU or UN; one suspects that a free thinker such as Ilves would have trouble slotting seamlessly into an international bureaucracy. First though, he says, “I want to take a break.” And then, for the first time in the best part of an hour, he stops talking.